What Is the Real Story of the Atomic Bombings?

America claimed the atomic bomb ended World War II and saved American lives. Journalist and historian Paul Ham calls that “a pack of lies”.

At the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, debate still rages over the decision to drop atomic bombs on inhabited cities. Paul Ham, an Australian journalist and historian, first published his provocative contribution to the debate in 2011. Hiroshima, Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath is a meticulously researched book with a compelling and riveting narrative. The controversial book has now been published in the US, where it’s certain to stoke furious debate, as well.

The impetus for this book was triggered, he says, by a “feeling things are not quite right, that we haven’t quite got the full picture. Because the histories that we have tend to be written by the victors… It was a feeling, a gut feel, that we hadn’t had the full story.”

Ham’s book challenges the view, widely perpetuated following the war and even today, that the atomic bombings played a key role in bringing World War II to a quick end, thereby saving Allied (and Japanese) lives. This rationale, says Ham, was articulated by US Secretary of War Henry Stimson in a February 1947 article published in Harper’s Magazine, when the US government was already on the defensive over its use of the bomb. It was a rationale that Ham describes as “a pack of lies”.

“The justification for the bomb has been that it avoided a million American lives. And this is just absolute fabrication, and a post facto justification for using the bomb. The invasion of Japan was effectively shelved in early July, two weeks before the bomb was tested. So it was never a case of either the bomb or invasion. But it’s convenient now to resurrect that bogus equation because it gives everyone a nice little feeling that we did it to save American lives…

The second [argument] is that this was done to shock the Japanese into submission, which is nonsense. They were going to fight on, and on, and on against a nuclear-armed America unless the life of [Japanese emperor] Hirohito was promised. Which it was, two days after Nagasaki. And the idea that they were bombing military targets? Well, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not military targets by August 1945. Their military effectiveness was completely removed. Hiroshima’s military factories were on the outskirts of the city… In Nagasaki, the bomb landed on its educational and Christian community and totally annihilated Nagasaki’s Catholics.”

Indeed, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with a handful of other Japanese cities – including Kyoto, Kokura, Niigata – had deliberately not been subjected to the regular American bombing raids which devastated other Japanese cities, because the US wanted to preserve them in order to assess the bomb’s destructive capability on a relatively undamaged urban setting.

What did finally end the Asian and Pacific war, says Ham, was the entry of Russia. Russia had a neutrality pact with Japan for most of the war, which was set to expire in early 1946 (and which the Allies had asked it to renounce early in order to support them against Japan). The US and England – already experiencing rising tensions with Russia (their erstwhile ally) over the administration of occupied Europe, and having successfully tested the atomic bomb – were now hoping to keep Russia out of the Pacific War in order to avoid the possibility of Russian expansionism in Asia.

The atomic bomb, some suggest, was intended not only to send a message to the Japanese but also to the Russians about America’s military power. In some ways, it had the opposite effect. Russia, fearful of losing out on the spoils in Asia if Japan surrendered, declared war early and attacked what was left of the Japanese army in China.

“The bombs were pretty much a side issue. [Japan] had already lost by July – 66 cities [were destroyed] by conventional bombardment. And so now they had two more cities destroyed. They didn’t have photographs of the bomb, they didn’t have TV footage, they just had flyers from America falling out of planes saying ‘your cities have been destroyed by an atomic bomb.’ They didn’t believe it at first, they just called it a ‘special bomb.’ Terrible rumours were coming out, but they just said okay, we will fight on. And they were girding themselves to fight on against a nuclear-armed America…

The Russian invasion of Japanese occupied territory in Manchuria destroyed the Kwantung Army, which was an elite Japanese army. And by that point the six old samurai who ran Japan from a Tokyo bunker realized the game was up. The Russians were striking them where it really hurt, which was against their soldiers, against their armed forces. And winning. Of course, Stalin had a vendetta against the Japanese for the loss of the 1905 Russo—Japanese War. You had this huge vengeance at play in Stalin’s mind. And the Japanese were terrified of becoming a communist satellite of Russia.”

War Against Civilians

A key theme of Ham’s book – and one of the lessons he says it holds for the present – is the futility, and abhorrence, of targeting civilians. It was something that both sides were guilty of in the Second World War, particularly through their use of aerial bombing raids. Ham recounts the horrific raids in tremendous detail. The strategy, he says, dates back to the ’20s, when military strategists began predicting that future wars would be determined by savage, first-strike aerial attacks.

“[The] idea was this knockout blow, where rather than bother with infantry, we’ll just send waves of bombers over the heads of the infantry and we’ll strike where it matters most, where it hurts most – at the hearth, in the home, the wives, the children – and destroy the civilian fabric of society. And they’ll either all be dead or the survivors would rise up and oppose the regime which was inflicting this war, this pain on them.”

It was a strategy that was carried out first by the Germans (in Spain and then elsewhere in Europe) and Japanese (against China), but was then replicated by the Americans and British (against both Germany and Japan). And in all cases, he says, such attacks failed to accomplish any strategic goals beyond slaughtering unprecedented numbers of civilians. It offers a lesson for the present, as well.

“The destruction of civilian life is basically a war crime, firstly, and doesn’t win wars. Because the people will stand firm, the people will resist. I cannot imagine your country, my country, giving in to an air invasion of bombers. We would retreat to ghettos, we would cover ourselves in shelters, and we would stand firm and fight for our country. It didn’t work in Germany, it didn’t work in Japan, and it didn’t work in Britain.”

Ham describes the firebombing of both Germany and Japan in meticulous, brutalizing detail. His book outlines the 13 February 1945 bombing of Dresden:

That night, 796 RAF Lancaster bombers in two waves unloaded 650,000 incendiary bombs over Dresden. The aircraft met no ground fire; the city lay undefended. The pilots, some of whom felt affronted, even ashamed, by this lack of opposition, flew in low. The first wave dropped 4,000-pound high explosives that broke open the roofs of buildings like the tops of eggshells; 750-pound clusters of incendiaries followed. The second wave encountered not a city but a raging furnace. Billowing clouds of smoke and flame obscured the aiming points. So they firebombed the fireball… About noon the next day 311 US bombers joined the RAF over Dresden, the first US aircraft to participate in a civilian terror strike. It was a superfluous act of overkill. The pilots believed they were attacking a railway terminal. Instead, they pulverised whatever remained of the inner city. The rubble danced and the corpses fell to dust. Then, lest any sign of life dare show itself, scores of low-flying Mustang fighters strafed the smouldering ruin and mowed down dishevelled crowds on the river banks and in the gardens where a remnant of the Kreuzkirche children’s choir and some British prisoners of war had sought refuge.

That single night in Dresden 100,000-135,000 civilians died (40,000 were killed during the entire London Blitz). Similar attacks would follow on other German cities, and then on Japan.

“They attacked pretty much every city in Germany, with the express target of destroying civilian life. Let there be no doubt about what the intention was… this was a determined effort to destroy civilian morale. And more than 60 cities were left in smoking ruins with horrific casualties. The Americans then did the same to Japan, with even more horrifying results.”

In the 9 March American bombing of Tokyo, half a million incendiary bombs were dropped, destroying 372,108 homes and killing roughly 110,000 civilians.

Amid such horrific destruction – often occurring night after night in cities across Japan – it’s perhaps not surprising that the intransigent Japanese military leadership refused to be moved by the destruction of Hiroshima (70,000 killed instantly, not counting those who died later from injuries or radiation) and Nagasaki (30,000 killed instantly). Japanese newspapers both denounced use of the bomb while also recounting tales of heroic Nagasaki workers staying at their posts during the bombing. The war ministry announced “Even though we may have to eat grass, swallow dirt and lie in the fields, we shall fight on to the bitter end, ever firm in our faith that we shall find life in death.” And Tokyo Radio issued calm instructions for how civilians could protect themselves against “the new bomb”.

“Here was the last testament of a delinquent regime beyond the reach of reason,” writes Ham. “The advent of nuclear war had manifestly not achieved the desired outcome; the atomic bomb had not shocked Tokyo into submission, as Washington intended (and later claimed). The nuclear bludgeon failed to deter the militarists… from their disastrous course. To them, another city had died in a country that had hitherto suffered the loss of more than 60.”

Yet many American military leaders also prioritized military strategy over humanitarian concerns. In his book, Ham describes meetings of the committee tasked with picking the bomb’s target: “not one of the committee men raised the ethical, moral or religious case against the use of an atomic bomb without warning on an undefended city. The businesslike tone, the strict adherence to form, the cool pragmatism, did not admit humanitarian arguments however vibrantly they lived in the minds and diaries of several of the men present. Total war had debased everyone involved.”

The Science of War

What about the scientists who built the bomb? Did they have any qualms about the unprecedented weapon they were designing and preparing to unleash? Some did. A group of 70 of them, led by the Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard, in fact signed a petition opposing its use before it was dropped. The petition was shelved and classified; the scientists, blacklisted and sidelined. Those who chose not to speak out – and even those who did – did so for a variety of reasons.

“The top scientists all knew what was going on. The middle ranking and junior ones were only working on one component, and it wouldn’t have been clear. They probably knew it was a big weapon or something but they weren’t clear on how it would be used. But those were the juniors. The top guys were all fully aware of what they were working on.”

While there were a few extremists who were “pretty gung ho” about using the weapon, he says, they – like the bomb’s vocal opponents – were a distinct minority.

“The majority of the scientists felt simply, this is a scientific job, this is our duty. And they were drawn – like many scientists – to the sheer challenge of trying to make this work.”

There was another moral quandary, too, he says. Many of the scientists working on the bomb were Europeans – including a large number of Jewish physicists and scientists — who had fled the Nazis, and who thought it would be used against Hitler. Germany’s defeat prior to the bomb’s completion led to an entirely different scenario, and one not everyone was comfortable with.

“A lot of the scientists, particularly the ones who had fled Europe and many of their families and friends had been killed in the Holocaust, were convinced that they’d be using the bomb on Germany. When it became clear to them that the bomb would be used on Japan, they joined the opposing camp. So that was a moral issue for them. Is it okay to use the atomic bomb on people against whom you have a personal issue, a personal fight? Or should the bomb not be used on anyone? This is a question the book raises.”

The dropping of the bomb, too, immediately led to sharply divided public opinion. Even among Christian churches, opinions were divided.

“You had the moral division in the church as well. There were extremely righteous, shrill pulpit-pounders echoing [US President] Truman’s line that this is the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the righteous, and this is the weapon with which we will smite the wicked, and all this kind of biblical fire and brimstone. And the other, moderate wing of the church was profoundly against it, and came out with some very powerful editorials and statements and speeches very soon after the bombs are dropped. In fact the Catholic Church was one of the first to condemn the bombs. And that placed Truman in a very awkward situation. He had to try to appease the church, and try to explain. He made an effort to explain to the Pope why this weapon had been used.”

The broad public was divided as well.

“Of course, lots of Americans were saying ‘well no, you can’t talk about rules of war, we’ll use any weapon we have to destroy the enemy.’ But that goes both ways. And so there is this extremely difficult moral climate where you had the moral high ground of the Catholic Church and you had the pretty much amoral world of the generals.”


Ham devotes the final chapters of his book to discussing the aftermath of the bomb and the plight of its victims. Throughout the book he traces the personal histories of several individuals and families, as the war proceeds and then as the bomb finally strikes. Even those who survived the initial attack, however, were plagued by burns and the effects of radiation for the remainder of their lives, as were their descendants in some cases.

‘Hibakusha’ is a Japanese term which refers to ‘bomb-affected person’, and is used to refer to these victims. Ham interviewed several of them in his book. For years – decades – after the bombing they suffered from medical neglect on the part of the Japanese and American governments, which refused for years to acknowledge their condition and provide compensation or medical support. Yet they also suffered from social stigma, incurred partly due to their physical appearance and ailments, but also to the reminder their presence invoked of Japan’s wartime misery and defeat.

“In the early years after the bomb they were shunned, they were dismissed, they were an embarrassment, they were a humiliating sign of Japan’s defeat. The seriously damaged hibakusha… with terrible scarring and their faces totally deformed, couldn’t go out in daylight, they were that horrific to look at. Families removed all the mirrors in their homes, so their sons and daughters couldn’t see themselves.” Many committed suicide.

In his book, Ham describes the plight of one young man, Hiroshi, the son of a hibakusha, who developed leukemia as a young adult. He got the story from Hiroshi’s mother Kikuyo, who had her uterus and ovaries removed when she was 25 years of age, and lost her hair as well.

Hiroshi grew up and married but did not tell his wife that his mother was a hibakusha. When his wife found out [when he developed leukemia] she screamed at her mother-in-law, ‘The doctor told me that you gave my husband this disease!’ The two women could not live together: ‘Every time she looked at me, she felt angry,’ Kikuyo recalls. Hiroshi’s wife soon moved out and divorced him; he died soon after.

It was only when America began compensating victims of radiation poisoning from the test bombings at Bikini Atoll in the ’50s that the hibakusha began organizing and demanding compensation and treatment as well. It was a struggle that lasted decades, explains Ham.

“Literally only in the past five years have many of them received special status, a passbook which shows that they’re in need of special treatment, there are special geriatric hospitals set up to treat their needs… it’s taken a long time and many have died in the interim.”

“It’s been an utter tragedy for these survivors to find themselves treated that way – innocent victims of what is ultimately a war crime.”

Yet many of the hibakusha do not consider themselves ‘special’ victims, he adds. He interviewed close to 80 of them in person (and more by email and phone).

“The overwhelming message I was getting is that they regarded themselves as casualties of war. Not as special, not more special than any other victims, than any other people who had been affected by war – by conventional bombardment, for example. They were very quick to point that out. The only thing that distinguished them was the fact that their illnesses, if they had radiation poisoning which most of them did, went on forever. Went on for their whole lives.”

Ham notes that while many westerners have reached out to help and support the hibakusha over the years, their symbolic role further complicated the way they were treated.

“[Hibakusha] didn’t want to be seen as martyrs to the largely western imposition on their countries that they’d been sacrificed to this horrible weapon. They were trying to not make themselves special in that sense. And a lot of visitors from the west who have come to Japan… they weren’t exploiting the [hibakusha], but they certainly had an agenda which was allied to the anti-nuclear cause. And they wanted to make the most of the political power of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So some of these [hibakusha] felt they were being used as pawns in a separate agenda.”

A Beautiful City

Hiroshima today is a beautiful city, says Ham, and his narrative tries to reconstruct and convey a sense of what the city’s beauty and rhythm of life was like before the bomb fell.

“What I wanted to do with the early chapters of this book is try to convey a sense of what this city was. Which was not a symbol for destruction or appalling cruelty or utter devastation, but actually a living, thriving community with lots of children happily going to school, an ordinary society in Japanese terms – and in our terms. I mean, ordinary people trying to get by in pretty horrific circumstances. That’s what I’m trying to reconstruct.”

When he first visited Hiroshima, heard the stories of survivors and witnessed the heart-wrenching displays at the A-Bomb Museum, Ham’s reaction was a powerful and visceral one.

“I sat down by the river in Hiroshima and I wept. I don’t cry as a rule, but I certainly held my head in my hands… I just sat by the river.”

“You can imagine, I was, you know, I suppose I was overwhelmed and I’m trying to keep my rational mind, my respect for the facts high at the forefront of my brain. But obviously, you wouldn’t be human if you were not moved by it.”

Ham argues that that’s not an inappropriate reaction, even for a historian.

“History is also about human emotion. And human feelings. Those who think that history is dates and names and heroes are kind of losing the plot, basically. They’ve lost the plot completely.”

Critical Responses

Ham’s analysis has been loudly criticized by some who defend the theories that dropping the bomb saved lives and ended the war.

“There are a lot of people who are of the view that it’s revisionist… which is an intriguing concept because in the book I made very clear that this is actually an orthodox history, and the revisionist history – the first revisionist history – was spun by Stimson, the war minister who, at the bidding of his colleagues wrote the Harper’s Magazine article in 1947 [justifying the bombing], which was a direct revision of history.”

He emphasizes that he’s not attempting to take sides, nor to downplay the aggressive role of Japan in the war. “I’m certainly not a novice to the subject of Japanese war time atrocities, as some people have accused me of being. In fact, I’ve written three books on Japanese war-time atrocities.”

But what irritates him the most is the partisan critics who attack his book without reading it.

“By all means criticize the book, attack it however you’d like. But please read it first, rather than just react in a knee-jerk way against a book you presume to be revisionist or peddling a pacifist agenda or whatever… I can see good points on either side [of the debate], at least in moderate terms. So read the book before you react. Try to look at it as an objective account of what happened on August the sixth and August the ninth. And then we can talk.”

Rules of War, Lessons of Peace

It’s 70 years after the bombings, and Ham believes the world has become a much safer place. Although there are terrible conflicts taking place even today, he notes that we no longer live in a world where two large blocs of nations are poised to make nuclear war with each other and destroy the world in the process. In 1960 the United States estimated that 50-60 countries would possess nuclear weapons before the end of the decade; today there are less than ten nuclear-armed states. Yet Ham’s work still contains powerful lessons for the present, he feels, particularly around the inhuman effects of total war.

“I suppose the point the book makes is that in times of total war you have the total debasement of humanity. You have a moral wasteland. There’s a sense that ends do justify any means, whether it takes an atomic bomb, or gas or chemical weapons. It’s hard, for example, for the US to claim that the Japanese were excessive in their use of appalling weapons if by the same token they justify the use of radiation poisoning of Japanese people.”

“Good intentions alone do not justify the flouting of the rules of war, and the key one, which is the massacre and slaughter of innocent people. Unfortunately for many of the generals and military experts, there are rules of war. We’ve drawn them up at several conventions – the Hague Conventions, the Geneva Conventions – they’re clearly written, clearly stated. And you know what? We don’t use mustard gas, or chlorine gas, any more. Or at least it’s not reported. We don’t use biological weapons, and we make a big noise about that if Syria does. There are rules of war. And we were bound by those rules in World War Two, which were completely flouted, by every side…”

“I do believe there are rules of war, and I do believe that nothing justifies the flouting of them. Especially not [the fact that] the enemy does so. Because that reduces us all to the level of barbarians.”